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Riding the Higher Range by Steve Voynick

Review by Ed Quillen

Livestock – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Riding the Higher Range – The Story of Colorado’s Coleman Ranch and Coleman Natural Beef
by Stephen M. Voynick
Published in 1998 by Glenn Melvin Coleman
Distributed by Big Horn Booksellers, Fort Collins
ISBN 0-9662331-0-7

EVERY SO OFTEN, George Sibley will open a conference at Western State College in Gunnison by pointing to the nearby McDonald’s on Highway 50. The fast-food outlet sits in a pasture and is often nearly surrounded by cows and calves. “If we could figure out why those calves don’t go to that McDonald’s,” he says, “then we might start understanding the West.”

Even though the beef industry is relatively small in gross economic terms — the average household spends more on footwear than beef, and the annual $30 billion of American beef production is about what Americans spend on cable TV — it looms large in geographic and social terms. When we think of the West, we think of cattle roaming a vast and open range.

So the story of a ranch is also the saga of a family, the history of its town and county, the tale of new cattle breeds and breeding methods, and an account of constant struggle in an industry that has been global since the first Spanish cattle arrived four centuries ago.

As Voynick explains, ranching starts with land, where sunshine and water produce grass, and northern Saguache County offers the proper combination. The Curtis family arrived in 1874; the Colemans in 1882. They soon intermarried as they took up ranching.

What follows until about 1980 is a generally fluid account of the vicissitudes of ranch life — markets that rise and fall, the arrival of federal agents to supervise grazing on public land, trains and then trucks to haul cattle and sheep to market, the constant struggle to stay ahead of the banker’s foreclosure auction.

This might have been the tale of my grandfather homesteading on two barren sections of Wyoming, or indeed that of any ranch in the West. It’s well told here — Voynick excels at taking disparate and complex information and merging it into a smooth narrative.

But instead of selling off 35-acre ranchettes when another financial crisis hit twenty years ago, Mel and Polly Coleman decided to create a market for what they could produce from land that had never been improved with herbicides and chemical fertilizers: Natural Beef, raised without hormones or antibiotics.

This involved not only raising the calves, but bringing them to market weight, finding a processor, arranging for distribution, persuading the regulatory agencies to allow a new labeling category, inspiring a public demand for the product, and persuading stores to carry it.

And if that weren’t work enough, Coleman ignited a fervent controversy in the beef industry. Many producers argued that by selling “Natural Beef,” Coleman was implying that there was something wrong with the other beef in the store’s cooler.

Coleman says he never meant to imply any such thing, that his beef was merely an option for consumers. But his critics point out that all American beef is free of antibiotics and hormones at slaughter time these days, and there’s nothing all that “natural” about cattle anyway — every modern cow is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding and other human intervention.

The controversy shows no sign of abating, what with recent heated arguments about proposed USDA labeling standards.

No matter which side you take on that matter, the Coleman story is an integral part of the controversy, and in Voynick’s hands, it’s an engaging and interesting story, worth knowing because the controversy will continue.

Sometimes my reading slowed in the 19th-century family lore, which seemed overly detailed for general public consumption, but that’s not a major part of the book. And the rest is an illustration of how one part of the Old West, a relatively isolated family ranch, became a leader in the New West of global markets and beef as a political statement.

Near the end is one striking irony: Mel Coleman started his Natural Beef as a way to hang onto his beloved home near Saguache. His enterprise succeeded so well that, to run it without spending all his time on the highway, he had to move to the Denver metro area. By trying to save the ranch so that he wouldn’t have to take a job in the city, he effectively ended up with the job in the city.

Whether you see Mel Coleman as a visionary who found economic salvation for scores of family ranchers, or as a clever promoter who plays Stetson stereotypes to the detriment of the rest of the industry, there’s quite a story behind him and his Natural Beef, and it’s a story well worth reading for anyone interested in the past and present of Colorado ranching.

— Ed Quillen